Plastic Fantastic: How Recycling Can Unlock Billions for BIMP-EAGA Economies

Date Published
March 31, 2021

More than 75% of plastic materials in Malaysia and the Philippines are discarded after single use rather than recovered and recycled. Photo credit: ADB

Zero-waste proponents have been saying for years there is gold in garbage. For plastic wastes in particular, recycling could add billions to BIMP-EAGA economies—Malaysia and the Philippines—given the right interventions, says a new World Bank study.

The study says if all the plastic wastes in Malaysia and the Philippines were to be recycled into valuable products, the total material value that could be unlocked would equal $1.3 billion and $1.1 billion per year, respectively.

Current practices though limit plastic recycling in the two countries, says the study, which also covered Thailand.

Although the use of plastic products has expanded twenty-fold globally since the 1950’s, reaching 360 million tons in 2018, only a small portion is recovered and recycled. Plastic’s popularity has grown over the years because of its low cost, functional properties, durability, and wide range of applications.  

Current practices limit plastic recycling in Malaysia and the Philippines. Photo credit: ADB

More than 75% of the material value of plastics is lost—valued at nearly $6 billion per year across all three countries—when plastics are disposed after single use rather than recovered and recycled. This represents “a significant untapped business opportunity” if key market barriers can be addressed, the study says.

Less than a quarter of the total amount of key plastics resins available for recycling in Malaysia and the Philippines are being recycled into valuable materials, leading to a plastic material value loss of $1 billion to $1.1 billion per year for Malaysia and $790 million to $890 million per year for the Philippines.

Plastic waste is a global problem. A total of $80 billion to $120 billion worth of plastic packaging is lost from the global economy each year due to lack of recycling or poor recycling practices, says the study. 

Globally, 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up polluting oceans each year, with Asia contributing to over 80% of the pollution.

Still, plastics play a key role in the global and the Malaysian and Philippine economies. The plastic industry contributed 30.98 billion ringgit ($7.23 billion) to the Malaysian economy, representing 4.7% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), in 2018. Meanwhile, the Philippines’ petrochemical industry contributed 113 billion pesos ($2.3 billion) to the national economy in 2018, representing 0.75% of the country’s GDP.

Circular economy

With countries recognizing the urgency to address plastic waste problems, governments have been transitioning toward a circular economy, which is based on the principles of “designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.” This is in contrast to the linear economic model where material and fuel resources are used to make products, which are then consumed and thrown away.

Realizing that mismanaged plastic waste has growing economic and environmental consequences, both Malaysia and the Philippines have started to address plastic pollution.

Malaysia now plays an active role at the regional level and has ambitious national goals to manage plastic waste. 

At the regional level, Malaysia is part of the Coordinating Body of the Seas of East Asia and the ASEAN Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment, which work to develop and protect the marine environment and coastal areas, including addressing marine and plastic pollution. 

At the national level, it has a drawn up a 2018–2030 roadmap toward zero single-use plastics. It is also working on another roadmap to shift to the circular economy model to address plastic production, consumption, recycling, and waste management.

There is also an increased awareness in the Philippines about managing plastic waste, with the government considering a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags. The Philippines is the third largest contributor of global plastic wastes, producing an estimated 0.75 million metric tons that end up in the ocean every year, 

The government is also developing new strategies, including a national action plan to deal with marine wastes and targeting to recover and recycle 80% of national waste by 2022.

One of the government’s high-profile initiatives against solid waste dates back to 1990, when it shut down the Smokey Mountain landfill and transformed it into a low-income housing community for more than 30,000 people. It worked with the Asian Development Bank to provide livelihood to the residents, many of whom had been scavenging at the dump. One of the livelihood projects involved setting up a waste recovery and recycling facility operated by a cooperative, which successfully provided jobs and livelihood to its members.


While the barriers to plastic recycling are unique to each country, there are common interventions that could help Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand unlock additional material value, the study says. 

It recommended the following:

  • Improve sorting of discarded plastics;
  • Set recycled content targets across all major end-use applications;
  • Mandate “design for recycling” standards for plastics, especially for packaging;
  • Encourage increase in recycling capacities (mechanical and chemical);
  • Implement industry-specific requirements to increase waste collection rates; and
  • Restrict disposal of waste plastics in landfills and phase out non-essential plastic items.